A bela bunda and what it has to do with the Sokal affair

The first draft of the chapter of MWA entitled Further investigations of the mind-body problem was written in a hurry in the summer of 2010, and for that reason can claim to be the first extended contribution to the metaphysical study of Ed Frenkel’s buttocks, as a contribution to mathematical culture.  By now, though, enough has been written about Frenkel’s bunda, as they say in Brazilian Portuguese, to fill an entire monograph.  Artur Ávila, who shared the stage with Frenkel in Paraty (pictured above) at the International Literary Festival, opened his remarks by saying that “Until today, I didn’t know Ed Frenkel, apart from his bunda.”  You can read about it in the article


from the Brazilian magazine VIP.  You can also read that, while Euclides, Arquimedes, Newton, Leibniz, Euler, like Frenkel, may have “unraveled major problems relating to human existence,” Frenkel has something the other guys didn’t:

ele é conhecido por ter uma bela bunda.

I trust the local organizing committee for the 2018 International Congress of Mathematicians in Rio to include the expression bela bunda in their information packet, and my fervent hope is that every Congress participant will have the opportunity to hear the expression at least once.

The journalist repeatedly insists that he hates mathematics, and for that reason finds the “seductive genius” all the more fascinating:

In an audience full of word fanatics, Frenkel managed to make the women — and the men — sigh for him, though he spoke only of numbers.

The guy can make an atheist listen to a complete reading of the Bible without complaining.

Frenkel’s skill at “conquering gatas” proves to the journalist that “the cultural identity [of mathematicians] created by Hollywood may not be realistic.”  The article goes on in this vein for eight pages.  You should read it if you want to see Frenkel demonstrate his powers of sedução on profesores universitários as well as on 25-year-old gatas; if you just want to get a glimpse of his nádegas you can click here and wait 37 seconds.  As for me, the interview raises one question and answers another one, with an observation in the middle.

The question:  In Paraty the journalist had the opportunity to see what the CNRS called Artur Ávila’s “charming smile”; he has surely read that Ávila is “trying to seduce foreign professors to come to Brazil with what he calls ‘a salary in kilos of filet mignon’” and that, according to University of Chicago professor Amie Wilkinson, “If you work with Artur …you have to get into a bathing suit.”  A diligent journalist would even have consulted Ávila’s horoscope and would therefore be aware that

[His] look, [his] charm, and [his] seduction are omnipresent elements in [his] behaviour.

Steeped in this information about his fellow Brazilian, how could he continue to find the Hollywood image of the mathematician in any way realistic?  Why did he have to wait until he met “the Russian with the Frenchman’s soul” to begin to question the image of the “traditional mathematician”?

The observation:  Ed Frenkel was in Brazil to promote the translation of his book.  I can’t help observing that, if my book had been translated into Portuguese, and if the journalist had read Chapter 6, where Ed Frenkel’s film is discussed, he would have realized that the image conveyed by Hollywood is completely inconsistent with the sexy reputation mathematicians enjoyed in 18th century France.  In this connection, I have to apologize for neglecting to mention in the book that Casanova himself aspired to be taken seriously as a mathematician, no doubt thinking that it would add to his charm — or perhaps that it would give new impetus to his career as a “seductive genius,” since the events I am about to report began when he was already 64 years old.  History has not recorded the shape of Casanova’s bunda (as far as I know) but his intention to publish his proof of the duplication of the cube is attested in the final volume of his memoirs, published posthumously, and here cited in the translation available from Project Gutenberg:

In October 1789, Casanova wrote M. Opiz that he was writing to a
professor of mathematics [M. Lagrange] at Paris, a long letter in
Italian, on the duplication of the cube, which he wished to publish.
In August 1790, Casanova published his ‘Solution du Probleme Deliaque demontree and Deux corollaires a la duplication de hexadre’.  On the subject of his pretended solution of this problem in speculative mathematics, Casanova engaged with M. Opiz in a heated technical discussion between the 16th September and 1st November 1790.  Casanova sought vainly to convince Opiz of the correctness of his solution. Finally, M. Opiz, tired of the polemics, announced that he was leaving on a six-weeks tour of inspection and that he would not be able to occupy himself with the duplication of the cube for some time to come.  On the 1st November, Casanova wished him a pleasant journey and advised him to guard against the cold because “health is the soul of life.”

The answer:  Enough of this silliness.  On the advice of one of the Ambitious Young Historians previously mentioned, I wrote to a Columbia professor, not in my department, to suggest that we meet for coffee.  Two months later he had still not replied.  The two AYHs I met at Harvard a few weeks ago found his silence inexplicable.  “What an ass!” exclaimed an outspoken friend of theirs, and she was not admiring his bunda.  But I was not at all surprised.  Enlightenment France is over. The sweaty-palmed readers of VIP magazine no longer believe that mathematicians have anything to teach them about sedução and many of our colleagues on the humanities side of campus don’t believe we have anything to teach them about anything.  Case in point:  the “high-minded, high-design” volume entitled Speculations (“The Future is _______”) that just arrived in my mailbox (along with a no-less high-design tote bag), the written record of “Fifty days of lectures, discussions, and debates about the future” organized by Triple Canopy at MoMA PS1 in mid-2013.  Editor Sarah Resnick’s eclectic and thought-provoking introduction to the volume explained that the lecture series

was Triple Canopy’s exhortation to artists, economists, novelists, biologists, activists, coders, poets, lawyers, sociologists, and musicians to bet on the future.

Compare Triple Canopy’s Borgesian list with MWA‘s report on what the Brazilian journalist called the “cultural identity” of mathematicians:

there seems to be a growing consensus that, in spite of the persistent public fascination with mathematics, it’s not among mathematicians that you’ll find the best parties, and that life is more fun in the company of dancers, philosophers (Anglo-American or continental), hedge fund managers, fashion designers, biomedical engineers, theater critics and/or performers, historians, industrialists, Russian Orthodox theologians, or anyone involved with the movies.

Not so many biologists contributed to the Triple Canopy volume, it turns out, and you’ll notice that mathematicians and physicists are totally absent from their list.  One danger of this omission is that time is assumed by default to elapse at the same rate for the excluded disciplines as for those branches of culture whose representatives were exhorted to place their bets; or else  mathematics and physics are assumed simply to be outside time, or outside culture, or both.

One side of the conflict around Alan Sokal’s hoax decreed sentences like the last one to be illegitimate, inasmuch as talk of time not based on theoretical physics was at best tolerated as a form of poetry.  For the other side of the conflict, as I already mentioned here, it’s taken as axiomatic that the Sokal affair was a power grab, or rather an aggressive attempt to maintain the academic power of the hard sciences, faced with the twin threats of a budget-cutting Congress (symbolized by the cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider) and what some called the “Academic Left” and others called postmodernism (the cultural period whose purportedly smug relativism preceded the emergence of institutions like Triple Canopy).  What I tried to tell the AYHs at that dinner a few weeks ago is that at least some representatives of the pro-Sokal side of the conflict were also motivated by the perception of a power imbalance, but one in the postmodernists’ favor.  In France this was clear-cut:  at public meetings with Sokal and Jean Bricmont, scientists and like-minded philosophers vented their resentment at the dominance of the media by public intellectuals who owed their visibility, it was rumored, to the effectiveness of their réseaux.  Perceptions were more complex in the United States, where the media read the science wars as a new front in the culture wars, Sokal himself framed his hoax as an intervention in Left (not “Left”) politics, asking the question

Why should the right wing be allowed to monopolize the intellectual high ground?

We scientists may have generous grants, Sokal might have been saying (though in fact I don’t remember him saying that), but public intellectuals are invariably humanists; they have the power to influence the public debate, and they are not using it to further the Left’s shared values.

Things have changed a bit since the 199os.  Triple Canopy’s editors, like the AYHs, can make sense of the jargon that so upset Alan Sokal, and even put it to good use, but they don’t use (much of) it in their writing.  Ed Frenkel — on the strength of his book, not his bunda — is now a public intellectual on several continents, with five articles to his credit in the NY Times alone.  Discursive power, however, the power of the word, still remains largely in the hands of the humanists.  It’s a problem that won’t be solved — if you see it as a problem —  by throwing fresh fruit at it.

7 thoughts on “A bela bunda and what it has to do with the Sokal affair

    1. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

      Thank you! I did a Google search on “Artur Ávila” and “bunda” but didn’t come up with anything useful; I would not have known to look for “A mulherada caiu matando” (for which I even found an illustration). I assume the name “Fire Street” (Rua do Fogo) suggests something to readers of O Globo but I can’t imagine what it suggests.


  1. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

    I’ve taken a closer look at the article in piauí where Ávila (before the Fields Medal) talks about “kilos of filet mignon.” It’s too long for me to absorb more than a few pages at a time but my impression is that it’s an unusually good treatment of mathematics.


    1. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

      Ha! The article was written by João Moreira Salles, prize-winning documentary filmmaker, founder of the journal piauí, brother of the filmmaker Walther Salles, with whom he is also tied for the position of world’s 894th richest billionaire. He must know a few things about filet mignon. If it weren’t for Ed Frenkel’s bunda I would not have known that the film about Che Guevara’s motorcycle trip was directed by a billionaire.


  2. Pingback: Three mathematicians, three novels, only one movie, part 3 | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

  3. Pingback: “Math is rarely sexy,” says 538.com | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

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